A good travel book doesn’t necessarily depend upon purity of concept, previous expertise, or length of stay. Of course, not having had the idea in the first place, arriving ignorant, and bunking off as soon as possible, aren’t faultless routes to truth and vividness. But Henry James’s A Little Tour in France, pungent and authoritative, was the suggestion of an editor at Harper, and didn’t take the novelist very long: as Leon Edel perhaps over-admiringly puts it, James ‘devoted all October 1882’ to the necessary voyage. Redmond O’Hanlon’s spectacular debut, Into the Heart of Borneo, began even more indirectly, as a newspaper commission not even to him but to his travelling companion James Fenton.
So we shouldn’t be too prejudiced against In the Vine Country when we discover that the idea came from The Lady’s Pictorial, the authors spent only two weeks in Bordeaux, and that they knew next to sod-all about wine to begin with. ‘In spite of a grand and complete ignorance